The Science Behind NSAIDs for Dogs How do they work?

The Science Behind NSAIDs for Dogs Alexsander Ovsyannikov /

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Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (otherwise referred to as NSAIDs) are one of the most common pain medications prescribed to dogs. Common medical issues that are treated with NSAIDs include arthritis and generalized pain (e.g. after surgery).

NSAIDs are safe for both humans and dogs, however, the two medication types are not interchangeable (i.e. you cannot give a dog NSAIDs made for humans). The reason behind this is because NSAIDs for human treatment are considerably stronger than NSAIDs made for dogs.

With that being said, NSAIDs are safe to use for the treatment of pain and inflammation in dogs, as long as the prescription is dog-specific. Safe NSAIDs like Metacam for dogs are produced only for canine-use and are created with very specific dosages.

If you’re curious about the science behind NSAIDs, or want to learn more about when NSAIDs might be helpful to your dog, our guide below serves as an excellent primer on everything regarding this popular treatment for dogs with pain/inflammation.

How NSAIDs Actually Work

When your dog gets injured, or their joints experience inflammation, its body produces something called prostaglandin. After prostaglandin has been created, there’s an enzyme called cyclooxygenase (COX) that’s released within the body’s injured cells.

Enzymes are naturally occurring substances in the body that serve to speed up certain chemical/bodily processes. They’re technically a type of protein, and their biostructure remains unchanged during the processes they take part in.

COX serves numerous functions, but one of its main ones is to produce prostaglandins (after the body has been injured). Prostaglandins are an important part of the body’s natural healing process, and are responsible for the following:

  • Help guard the body’s stomach and intestinal linings.
  • Regulate and enhance the body’s flow of blood to the kidneys.
  • Assist in the body’s production of blood platelets.
  • Involved in the body’s production/response to inflammation and pain.

Most NSAIDs on the market effectively block the actual production of prostaglandins (by COX), therefore essentially blocking the body’s production of pain/inflammation. Other NSAIDs work not by blocking the development of prostaglandins, but rather by blocking certain processes of prostaglandins.

Whatever method the NSAID uses, it essentially reduces the amount of pain and/or inflammation experienced in the body. This is why they’re such a popular pain medication (for both dogs and humans).

What To Look Out For if Your Dog is Taking NSAIDs

While NSAIDs are one of the most widely used (and effective) pain medications available, they also have some side effects that need to be considered. The mildest side effects are as follows:

  • Nausea and diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Less of an appetite
  • Lethargy (i.e. not physically active)

While these side effects might not seem like much, there are also other (more serious) complications that can occur. Most of the following symptoms are usually caused by underlying/pre-existing conditions (or interactions with other medications).

  • Ulcers within the stomach and intestines.
  • Perforations within the dog’s stomach and intestinal walls.
  • Failure of the dog’s kidney and/or liver.
  • Complications that lead to the death of the animal.  

Stomach and Intestinal Side Effects of NSAIDs

The large majority of the side effects caused by NSAIDs occur within the stomach and/or intestines. This is due to the drug essentially being broken down within those areas and then becoming trapped there. Because NSAIDs are acidic by nature, they then irritate the stomach/intestines.

Apart from the direct physical interactions that occur within the body, there are also biological interactions happening on a micro/molecular level:

  • NSAIDs work by blocking the development of prostaglandins (or blocking their processes), which in turn results in the prostaglandins being unable to guard the lining of the stomach/intestines (which is one of their natural roles within the body).
  • Using NSAIDs might cause the stomach lining/intestinal tract to become more vulnerable and/or sensitive (which has a direct effect on the increased likelihood of ulcers and holes in the lining).

Possible Interactions With the Liver and Kidneys

Kidney damage and/or failure is a possible side effect of using NSAIDs in dogs (as well as humans). Prostaglandins help the kidneys regulate blood flow when the body is under certain types of stress (e.g. dehydration, surgery, injury, etc.).

When NSAIDs are used, and prostaglandins are subsequently blocked, the kidneys become a lot more vulnerable to sustaining damage (and if there are enough underlying issues and/or interactions - can eventually lead to organ failure).

If your dog has a history of kidney problems or is currently being treated for health problems associated with their kidneys, you might want to discuss alternative options with your vet (in regards to NSAIDs). This is largely dependent on the context of your dog’s specific health situation.

The possible interactions that might occur can be very serious. However, if proper precautions are taken, many dogs with kidney problems can successfully take NSAIDs. Apart from possible complications with the kidney, NSAIDs can also potentially cause problems with the liver as well.

Potential Side Effects in the Liver

There are generally two types of problems that can occur with the liver, and both revolve around toxicity. These can be reduced to the following types:

  • Dose-dependent: This is when your dog ingests a large quantity/dosage of NSAIDs (usually through accidentally eating a bottle) and then experiences liver damage.
  • Dose-independent: Contrary to dose-dependent, this type of liver interaction can occur at any level dosage. This is when the liver simply has an intense sensitivity to NSAIDs and is usually random in its occurrence.

We hope these facts haven’t scared you from considering NSAIDs for your dog, however, we feel it’s important to be as informed as possible when making treatment decisions for your pup. NSAIDs are safe for the large majority of dogs.

If your dog has a history of kidney and/or liver problems, your vet will most likely have them take regular blood tests (to ensure there are no problems/interactions occurring between the NSAIDs and your dog’s livers/kidneys).

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